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Digesting The Often Unpalatable History Of Dieting

When it comes to selling diets, it's always “new”, always “revolutionary” and it is always “the diet to end all diets.”

But let's take a close look at the history of dieting because, as that great American man of letters George Santayana said, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it” - and those words are as true of eating behavior and obesity as they are of any other area of human history.

There is pretty much general agreement on the physiological creation of obesity. How many millions of people have starved to death down human history, no-one knows. But evolution grew to favor those who were adept at converting easy food pickings into fat stores for survival during the lean times.

And throughout much of history until only quite recent times, for the vast majority of people the major issue with food has always been getting enough of it, not unwanted fatness. Until about 200 years ago, most guidelines on diet were mainly to do with custom and culture, particularly issues of religious observance.

Prior to this time, various early Greek and later European sages, when commenting on the moral benefits of relative moderation and temperance, also noticed some of the apparent health benefits but health was rarely the major focus of their discourses.

It is said that William, the Norman Conqueror of Britain, was spurred by his failing riding abilities to attempt to lose weight. He tried drinking extra wine as a substitute for food, foreshadowing some modern dieters' habits of attempting to suppress appetite with alcohol or cigarettes.

It was in the late 1700's that social commentators first started noticing a rising level of obesity in Europe and the US, this being the time of new wealth creation and the fast rise of new middle classes keen to acquire and flaunt their money. Until then obesity was a rarity, a curiosity, or generally a sign of affluence, reserved for the mighty of status and mighty in bulk of the state, church, or commerce.

Some historians pinpoint the emergence of modern-style dieting to the 1829 vegetarian and wholegrain advice of New Jersey preacher Rev. Sylvester Graham. However, Graham's advice was heavily framed in Presbyterian moralism about lustings of the flesh and it is perhaps to a slightly later figure that we better look as the Father of Modern Dieting.

William Banting was a London undertaker in late middle-age who despaired of being able ever again to bend to tie his shoe laces or even walk forwards down a flight of stairs. He then adopted a high-protein and high-fat diet, supplemented with some vegetables, as recommended to him by his doctor - and lost several stones over a period of a year or so. So enthused was Banting that he published the world's first dieting blockbuster, his Letter on Corpulence. Banting was not so much concerned about any perceived major health risks of his obesity, more the sheer discomfort of immobility and the many minor associated ailments.

Like so many dieting books that have followed, the Letter of 1862 was flabby, overwritten, repetitive, smug and desperately deficient in any detailed scientific explanation......Banting is indeed the Founding Father of a dubious publishing tradition!

However, to be fair, Banting lost a considerable amount of weight – and kept it off (and he didn't publicize for monetary gain). Yet his achievement is the starting point of a heated debate that has been central to the Dieting Industry's evolution ever since.

Banting put his success down to abstaining from “starch and saccharine matter”. This has been seized upon by legions of low-carb diet advocates every since as seminal proof that high-protein, high fat-and low-carbohydrate dieting is the Holy Grail of weight-loss.

There is, though, a glaring problem in this contention. Whilst Banting quantifies in some detail his diet consumption, he simply generalizes about what went on beforehand. We hear of beer and pies and pastries and bread – and we can only speculate as to the quantities.

Was his weight-loss simply due to eating less overall food, or was there a magic in his particular food method? From his evidence we cannot know. And ever since this argument has raged between advocates of one diet or another diet – is there a particular effect of limited carbohydrates in raising metabolism, accelerating weight-loss and facilitating weight-control?

But does it even matter? What if all this debate about whether certain foods have certain effects is simply a sideshow which maintains an unhealthy focus on food and eating? Could it be that there are higher food and dieting truths which should take precedence? - Namely that the vast majority of people know only too well the fundamentals of healthy eating, recognizing instinctively what they need and what is merely consumerism, or just plain gross.

Also, perhaps it is far more the emotional and cultural factors which keep excess weight in place than the precise mechanics of exact foods, with the simple truth being that an excess of intake will result in an ongoing excess of stored fat. And, to take it forward one more step, there are apparently more and more people realizing that a dieting-lifestyle obsession can in fact be a contributor to obesity.

Whatever, the diet bandwagon was rolling and German doctor Felix Niemeyer very soon subtly altered Banting's advice by adding in a low-fat prescription, thus sending the two strands of protein-and-fat-in-the-diet and restricted-fat-in-the-diet on their divergent paths.

By the late 19th Century, dawning health concerns over excessive overweight were being matched by high-Victorian moral prudishness. It was no longer cool to be rich and flaunt it with a paunch. It is no coincidence that the first recorded characterizations of Anorexia were drawn at this time amongst the daughters of the rich.

Around 1900, when insurance companies proclaimed a relationship between obesity and morbidity, fat and health became generally linked in the popular consciousness.

In the early part of the 20th Century, the growth of bigger government - a more all-pervasive state - led to great advances in public health in both the US and the UK. Along with many epochal advances in social welfare there came a series of general and aspirational announcements on what the “ideal diet” should be. As ever down to the present day, the public generally paid not a blind bit of notice to such exhortations, unsupported as they were by the excitement of any hard sell from the Diet Industry.

And hard sell there certainly was. The first quarter of the new century saw everything from thyroid extracts from dead animals, to relatively harmless (and useless) herbal extracts, through to the newly developed amphetamine drugs being promoted as obesity wonder cures.

Two key factors fueled the fast growing Diet Industry. The first was a relative abundance of food in the West; today we live in an era of global nutritional imbalance – there are roughly the same number of people who are overfed as are underfed.

The second was the glamor of Hollywood, with its perfect stars of perfect physique. To an increasing number of observers, dieting has always remained more of a slave to fashion, despite its lip-service to health issues.

Flying the flag for moderation in the 1920's, bringing the old-style abstinence-is-close-to-godliness messages forward into a new era, was US doctor Lulu Hunt Peters. She added the new science of calorie counting to traditional self-denial, advocated lifelong restricted calories via an obsessively closely-controlled regime. For Peters it was not just overindulgence which was the sin; physical evidence of overweight was abhorrent.

In these ways best-seller Peters could be seen as being the Founding Mother of what modern weight control charity The Weight Foundation calls Lifer Dieting, referring to those who are permanently dieting and cannot envisage without catastrophizing a single day off their strict routine.

Taking stock, we are now have background on the formation of four of the major strands of the modern Dieting Industry: high-fiber/whole-food, high-protein with high fat, low-fat and, fourthly, rigid overall calorie control.

Another major tradition had already become a widespread dieting phenomenon by the time of Peters' pious exaltations to abstinence.

William Hay came up with the idea that certain food groups of his designation should only be eaten in strictly defined pairings. Food combination diets also still recur frequently in fresh guises because it is exceptionally easy to come up with new combinations to recommend.

The second half of the 20th Century saw it all trotted again in endless variations – the high fiber F-Plan, the carnivore's delight of first Stillman and then Atkins, low fat in numerous guises, new combinations with the Beverley Hills and simple deprivation endlessly repacked, usually with “celebrity” endorsement (and often with an increased emphasis on low carbs, or somehow differentiated carbs).

So, are we scraping the barrel by now for new diets? Well, the big bandwagon rolling on in to the 21st Century has been carbs with a new twist. Picking up on the Glycemic Index, developed to assist diabetics with the timed glucose-level effects of various foods, this concept has been dragged into the realm of dieting advice. But is it just a case of new words, old ideas – aren't we back with Banting's “starch and saccharine matter”?

In fact, we could go back a good deal further. The world's oldest surviving medical document, the Ebers Papyrus from 1550 B.C. Egypt, contains a recipe for an anti-diabetic diet of wheatgerm and okra.

It's got a long history, this dieting business. There are grains of truth here and there but it's not a particularly proud history when it comes to lasting weight control.

Certain diets will make people lose weight. Consistently consuming less energy than you expend will definitely result in weight loss. Diets just happen to be notoriously hopeless at achieving the one thing that really matters – moving away from a poor or obsessive relationship with food, to a good and relaxed relationship. Mind-shifts do not happen in the stomach.

About the Author: The Weight Foundation secretary Malcolm Evans is the author of this article.
The Hardcore Dieting Index self-test on dieting behavior is featured on The Weight Foundation website.

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